Tears Spilled in Aisle Six: The Supermarket as a Conformist Hell
Now that we live in a world of factory farms and pre-packaged snack foods, supermarkets are a near essential portion of our lives. Unless you make the trek to the farmers’ market every day or, god forbid, grow your own food, they are the only place where you can gather up the sustenance you need to get through your weary working life. Perhaps this is the reason that they have become a symbolic representation of modern conformity.
Everyone goes to the supermarket in the same way that everyone falls asleep or goes to the bathroom. They are collections of long, thin aisles packed with people who barely say a word to each other. If a child cries in the grocery store, he or she will be scolded or, in some cases, hit. Acting out in a supermarket is a societal no-no. They are a place of peace, quiet, and keeping to oneself. All business, no pleasure.
Like they should, artists throughout the twentieth and twenty first centuries have reaped the symbolic benefits of the supermarket in their work. While there are surely other examples, the works chosen here represent three widely different mediums all searching for meaning in the same place. Next time you are in line at your local brick and mortar grocery store, consider the notion that you may be wallowing in the midst of a bland wasteland. The cashiers may ask why you are sobbing; ask them why they are not.
Ginsberg and Whitman Walk into a Supermarket
Firstly, Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “A Supermarket in California,” explores the confines of the supermarket from the perspective of a societal outsider: a gay man. Because we live in a vaguely more progressive era, we must recall that times were much harder for gay men in 1955, when the poem was written. He begins the poem by pointing out “Aisles full of husbands! Wives in the avocadoes, babies in the tomatoes!” All around him, Ginsberg sees perfect nuclear families blending into the supermarket with eerie ease. To him, they literally sit among the food and aisles, neatly in place, fitting in more than he ever could.
Then, he spies a childless old man “poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.” That old man is the most famous gay American poet, Walt Whitman. Because the heterosexual males and females around him conform so perfectly to the ideal of the supermarket, Ginsberg feels drawn to Whitman and his lonely meandering. Amongst the supermarket, they stroll “down the open corridors in [their] solitary fancy.” The two gay men latch onto each other and revel in the feelings of loneliness and isolation they have when faced with the all-American values of the supermarket.
With each other as support, they finally gain the courage to leave the supermarket and walk together among the “solitary streets.” To them, the supermarket represents a spotless haven from which they are excluded merely for being different. Ginsberg’s examination of the supermarket leads nicely into another piece of work that examines conformity among groceries, The Clash’s 1979 song, “Lost in the Supermarket.”
Buying a Personality at the Supermarket
The lyrics of the song detail the coming of age of a young boy amongst a world with hyper-materialistic values. The speaker feels as though he has no control over his own life, as evidenced in the line, “I wasn’t born, so much as I fell out.” He feels that this world was thrust upon him. In order to survive, he visits the supermarket for “that special offer / A guaranteed personality.” No matter how much he buys from the supermarket, he feels an uncomfortable sense of loneliness.
Though there is no evidence that he has an attribute (like Ginsberg’s homosexuality) that would necessitate feelings of isolation, the speaker still feels like an outsider. The song furthers the idea of the supermarket as a bastion of conformity for this reason. Though no one in the supermarket interacts with each other, everyone feels a bit lonely inside them. Why not talk to each other? The song proposes that there is no answer except for the idea that everyone is too set in their ways to break any societal trend.
Being a punk band, The Clash had obvious qualms with the confined, purely suburban nature of the supermarket. No one should feel lonely, but it is not possible to thrive in a world where everyone is merely trying to buy their way to happiness. No matter what the supermarket has in stock, so long as it keeps its buyers in a bubble of isolation, no one will be able to break free from their own specific loneliness. A film from 1985, Repo Man, shows what would happen if one brave soul tried to break out of the rut of Supermarket Life.
A Reagan-ified Vision of the Supermarket
In the beginning of the film, Otto, the protagonist, works in a supermarket that is the picture of conformity. Director Alex Cox takes blandness to comical heights. Each box of cereal has a white label that merely says, “Corn Flakes.” Beer can labels read, “Beer.” And so on and so forth.
Otto works alongside a fellow drone who seems to have absorbed consumer culture into his very core. As the scene in the grocery store begins, the coworker is jovially singing a jingle for the soda, Seven-Up. Up walks the owner of the grocery store to berate Otto for not aligning the cans correctly because, in the supermarket, everything must be perfect. It is one of their more disturbing characteristics. Everything is straight lines or beautifully constructed pyramids.
Having had enough, Otto turns to his boss and says, “F— you!” His coworker laughs, so Otto throws him into the pyramid of cans. At this, a cop points a gun at Otto and forces him to leave the store. In the supermarket, any sign of chaos or otherness must be expelled. In Alex Cox’s world, this point is taken to its logical extreme, with policemen making sure everyone follows the implied rules.
Otto is kicked out for being unruly. People do not usually think of supermarkets as having “rules” because nearly all of the rules are implied. Whenever they are broken, people just know. It is this implied status quo that keeps people in line at the supermarket, forcing them to act their best at all times. A person in a supermarket knows exactly what to do and how to do it. No one feels truly right in the supermarket because the standards for behavior in them are turned up to a perfect ten. They possess us with an Orwellian sense of fear towards acting out. One surely cannot cry in a supermarket, and one cannot even laugh too loud in one without blushing.
As these three examples show, the necessary act of buying food at the grocery store paralyzes most people into a state of conformity. If one cannot conform, one feels isolated, lonely, or despised. For whatever reason, no one can be themselves in a supermarket. We are either searching, lost, or trying to break free. As an essential portion of modern life, the supermarket and its rules cannot be ignored. Art shows the dark side of a place in which everyone must act according to a specific set of rules. While one may not think of a supermarket as an evil entity, these works pose the idea that they are more insidious than they seem.
These works each came from a place outside of mainstream culture. Ginsberg was a Beatnik, The Clash and Alex Cox are punks. They each performed exactly the task one would expect from the counterculture: pointing out and mocking a portion of accepted mainstream culture. While they are united under the idea of the supermarket, these three works approach the subject matter in a variety of ways. Thoughtful meditation, ironic distance, and chaotic disruption, respectively. But their end goals were all the same, and that is why art holds so much power. Each began from a vastly different perspective and gave a unique spin on the conformist culture of supermarkets, each as effective as the other but still wonderfully unique.
Many artists have found symbolic importance in the aisles of a supermarket. What does it say about us as a society that major portions of our lives are spent hiding our true selves? Being nonconformists, these artists were unafraid to probe deep into their nations’ psyches and try to tear down the well-formed facade in the hope of finding some deeper truth. They came back with the realization that Supermarkets hold more power over the way we behave than anyone might have previously suspected. We are all lost in the supermarket, but it will take nothing more than a great piece of art to help us find our way out.
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